In order to keep the Rover warm during two long journeys (the trips to Pathfinder and to Schiaparelli), Watney recovers the RTG (Radioactive Thermoelectric Generator) that had powered the Ares 3 MAV before the Ares 3 Crew arrived on Mars. The RTG is essentially a box of unstable plutonium, and it’s highly dangerous for Watney to handle. NASA uses RTGs as power sources for unmanned missions, but they are not willing to risk explosion or exposing their astronauts to high levels of radiation by using the RTG on manned missions. However, in order to survive on Mars, Watney must take the kind of risks that NASA cannot condone—he must recover the RTG from the place where Lewis buried it a safe distance from the Hab and use it in order to keep himself warm enough to stay alive. The RTG exemplifies the narrow margin of error that Watney confronts time and again. As long as the RTG remains intact, it’s relatively safe; if it’s damaged, it will become deadly. Regardless, though, if Watney doesn’t at least try to use the RTG, he will certainly die. In this way, the RTG is emblematic of all of the risky, lose-lose choices that Watney must make on Mars.
The RTG Quotes in The Martian
The RTG is a generator. It’s a paltry amount of power, compared to what the rover consumes, but it’s not nothing. It’s one hundred watts. It’ll cut an hour off my total recharge time. Why not use it? I wonder what NASA would think about me fucking with the RTG like this. They’d probably hide under their desks and cuddle with their slide rules for comfort.
“What about the RTG? Does the public know about that yet?” Teddy asked. Annie leaned forward. “So far, so good,” she said. “The images are public, but we have no obligation to tell them our analysis. Nobody has figured it out yet.” […] “How dangerous is it?” Teddy asked. “As long as the container’s intact, no danger at all.”